Saturday, March 15, 2003

She reaches kids in her books

Former top teacher tackles tough subjects

By Sue Kiesewetter
Enquirer contributor


ROSS TWP. - Her topics are serious: suicide, child abuse, date rape, drinking and driving.

Her chapters are short: a page here, four pages there.

But author Sharon Draper has a following among middle school students that keeps the former Cincinnati teacher writing. And it all started in a Cincinnati Public Schools classroom when a "smart mouth kid" gave Draper a contest entry form.

"He said, `You think you so bad? Why don't you write something?' '' said Draper, who spent Friday talking to Ross Middle School students and teachers.

That three-page story, One Small Torch, which won Draper a $5,000 cash prize, later became the first chapter of Forged By Fire, the second book in a trilogy.

Using Cincinnati as a backdrop, Draper writes about social issues realistically.

"I put the issue out there and let the kids come to their own conclusion. If you talk down to kids you turn them off,'' said the Kennedy Heights resident who was named Ohio Teacher of the Year and National Teacher of the Year for 1997.Before meeting Draper or reading her books, 14-year-old Justin Williams thought she'd "be some old boring person who wrote a book.''

But he liked the plot and story of Tears Of A Tiger, when he read it for a class assignment.

"It made a lot of sense,'' Justin said.

Classmate Louis Sunderhaus started reading the same book "because I had to for class, but I kept on reading because it was a good book.''

Draper said she had no intention of ever becoming a writer "because I was teaching. My job was to make your life miserable.''

She taught for more than 20 years before writing a single word. And when she sent off her manuscript for Forged By Fire she got 24 rejection letters before publisher Simon & Schuster accepted it. It went on sale in 1994 and won several awards.

Ross teacher Robin Lowman said teachers wanted the sometimes-controversial books on the school's approved reading list "because the kids were reading them constantly from the library. They spark conversation.''

Tears of A Tiger "went through the school like wildfire after a student committed suicide a few years ago,'' said teacher Lisa Oravec. "It comforted them.''

Thirteen-year-old Sarah Stapleton said she reads Draper's books "because they keep you hooked.''

Ainsley Hicks looks for books by authors who are tuned in to real life. "I'm not interested in fairy tales,'' said Ainsley, 13. "I read things that I can believe.''


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